Translating Cen

Cen is a rare word in Old English. It’s a torch here in the Rune Poem, and Cynewulf uses it to mean torch in his games with runes. Cynewulf: an Old English poet and fascinating person who made acrostics out of runes when signing his name to stuff, and about whom we know pretty much nothing. We know he was one of a limited few who ever signed anything. Perhaps he was a monk: it is thought most writers of Old English lived in monasteries, where the individual is not the main focus. They have a whole other focus. But you can slip your signature in there if you make something amusing out of it. Cynewulf was pretty cunning like that when it came to self promotion.

Perhaps we can look at Cynewulf’s name to learn a bit more about him. Sometimes the cen rune shape is written in manuscripts as shorthand for the word cene, which means what it sounds like, keen, but in a bold and brave way. That kind of keen. In the Rune Poem it means torch not bravery, but who among us isn’t more bold in the dark if there’s a light turned on? Wulf means wolf. Was Cynewulf a brave wolf because he had a torch? If he’s a cyn wolf he might be a wolf with a prominent chin? Or maybe a wolf from a good family? Perhaps he is kin to a wolf, is he a dog? Is he more about loyalty than predation? When he’s Cynewulf all these possibilities apply at the same time. Always give in to the multiplicities of interpretation in Old English where meanings are many though the words are few. That’s a game they’d play: use the least number of words to mean the most things and pun often. I don’t always play that way. It is a fun game and one of my favorites, though it does take longer to say less. I could tell you how in a word but we’d be here all day.

Blac  is white again  in this stanza, but it has a different meaning from its use in the Ear stanza. There, in the grave, blac means pale: the loss of any color that says this one’s still alive. The pallid one chooses the earth as its consort. Here blac means something glittering bright, shining. Fire: white hot. You have to be careful with fire, especially if you have torches burning all over the place and your flames are not restricted by the necessity of cramped quarters to one safe cooking/heating spot like most people. Fire safety is important when your home is made of wood, and that torch you lit indoors at night is going to need some space around it if you plan to leave it out like that, burning. It’s late, don’t fall asleep because God knows what will happen if you do. You’ll burn it all down. Who’s got a house big enough to feel safe resting with a torch burning away in the middle of everything? The æþelingas do. The boss has a spacious house like that. The rich can afford to sleep with the lights on. Find the torch inside where princes rest, and nowhere smaller.